by Rahul Kapur
Whether you are trying to prevent chronic disease or manage it, one of the very best places to start is reducing the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in your diet.
Decades of research indicate a rapid increase in omega-6 consumption in the United States and other western societies over the last 70 years has been a primary factor behind the alarming rise of not just coronary heart disease, but chronic inflammation.
Omega-6s and omega-3s are said to be “essential fatty acids,” because our bodies can’t synthesize them without chemicals we can only obtain from food. But research over the last 40 years has demonstrated these polyunsaturated fatty acids are also essential to regulating everything from immune response to blood pressure, blood clotting and even the development of the nervous system and brain.
To make omega-6s and omega-3s, our bodies need essential fatty acids that can only be obtained from our diet. This has led most researchers to attribute the imbalance to the enormous increase in consumption of vegetable oils rich in fatty acids our body uses to make omega-6s, including those made from safflower, sunflower, soybean, corn, and cottonseed oil.
When in balance, these fatty acids play a critical role in protecting the body from infection, maintaining cell membranes and storing energy in fat to ensure healthy brain development. When out of sync, they can lead to chronic illnesses ranging from coronary heart, inflammatory and autoimmune disease to cancer.
An enormous and growing body of medical research shows that is exactly what’s happened in the United States since the 1950s.
Omega-3 fatty acids: anti-inflammatory powerhouses
Omega-3s are made using fatty acids found most abundantly in green leafy vegetables and oils made from chia, flax, and linseed and cold-water fish.
Plant sources tend to be high in alpha-linoleic acid, or ALA, while salmon, tuna and herring are considered among the best sources of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are thought to have potent anti-inflammatory properties.
Once ingested, these fatty acids are converted to hormones called “eicosanoids” that tend to be anti-inflammatory. They can suppress abnormal heart rhythms, act as anticoagulants and help remove cells killed by the immune system.
Omega-3s are associated with reduced risk of coronary, inflammatory, autoimmune disease and cancer.
There is growing interest in how omega-3s affect the brain. Research indicates it could play a role in treating autism and Alzheimer’s disease. One recent study even suggested that vegans may enjoy a mental edge because plants tend to be rich in omega-3 precursors.
This helps explain why fish oil supplements are the most popular supplements taken in the United States today, although there is still ongoing debating research that says there is no clear evidence that they deliver most of the health benefits manufacturers promise.
Omega-6 fatty acids: key actors in our metabolic and immune systems
The primary sources of omega 6 in the U.S. diet is linoleic acid (LA), which is found in seed oils derived from soybean, corn, safflower, sunflower and cottonseed. This acid LA is metabolized by our bodies into either anti-inflammatory gamma-linoleic acid (GLA) or pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid (AA).
Decades of research indicate a rapid increase in omega-6 consumption in the United States and other western societies over the last 70 years has been a primary factor behind the alarming rise of not just coronary heart disease, but chronic inflammation. Studies have shown that high doses of GLA supplements significantly reduced symptoms of arthritis and enhance the effectiveness of drugs taken to treat breast cancer. They may also reduce symptoms of nerve pain in people with diabetic neuropathy and rheumatoid arthritis. There is little scientific evidence that evening primrose – one of the most popular GLA supplements – helps reduce symptoms of allergies, eczema or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Excess consumption of omega-6, however, is
associated with a higher risk of a broad spectrum of chronic illnesses is rampant in the United States.
The bulk of omega-6 eicosanoids are derived from AA, which plays a key role in regulating our metabolism and immune system. They can store energy in fat tissue, maintain cell membranes and constrict or dilate blood vessels and bronchial tubes to enhance blood flow and breathing. They can trigger clotting, cardiac arrhythmias and cause fever and pain – all critical to defending our body from infections. They’ve also been shown to stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health and maintain the reproductive system.
Our oil-drenched diet
Research has tied a rapid increase in omega-6 consumption in the United States and other western societies over the last 70 years to an alarming rise of not just coronary heart disease, but auto-immune disease and even some cancers.
Today, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 intake in the United States is estimated at 17:1, or more than four times higher than what doctors consider optimal.
This alarming spike has been attributed primarily to the pervasive use of certain vegetable oils in processed foods and livestock feed. Most of poultry, pork and beef raised in the United States today are fed soy and corn, which contain a high level of linoleic acid.
One report estimates the amount of linoleic acids found in U.S. body fat rose 134 percent from 1965 to 2015 due primarily to a 10-fold increase in per capita consumption of soybean oil during the 20th century.
In Japan, by comparison, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio remains close to 4:1. High consumption of fish and seafood rich in omega-3s is thought to have contributed to lower risk of heart attacks and atherosclerosis and the second highest life expectancy in the world. But even there, the rate of inflammatory bowel disease is rising in tandem with increasing consumption of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Fish versus fish oil supplements
While many Americans have turned to fish-oil supplements to correct this imbalance, research indicates they might be better off lowering their intake of omega-6s or upping their consumption of salmon, tuna and herring.
The federal agency leading research of unconventional medicine acknowledges omega-3 supplements may relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, but has yet to find clear evidence they provide most of the other benefits manufacturers claim, including reducing the risk of coronary heart disease, prostate cancer and macular degeneration.
Moreover, while the risks of eating too much fish have been shown to be negligible, studies have found that excessive intake of omega-3 supplements can increase the risk of chronic infections, inflammatory bowel disease, colon and prostate cancer, atrial fibrillation and nervous system disturbances.
Everyone - and especially those taking blood thinners or coagulants or allergic to fish or shellfish - should consult their physician before taking any supplements.
Nearly 40 years later, we still don’t fully understand why that ratio is associated with lower risk of inflammatory and other chronic diseases in humans. Scientists have been unable to duplicate many results seen in mice and other animals in humans because of the many other factors affecting our health, including genetics.
In the meantime, it’s clear that reducing the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in our diets is one of the most effective ways to lower our risk of chronic disease.
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by Khyati Kapur